The plight of the African elephant seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. This is a good thing since the elephant is fast going the way of the woolly mammoth. But what is actually being done on behalf of the elephant? In point of fact, absolutely nothing. Laws to outlaw the sale or importation of ivory are mere window dressing to a problem that is intrinsic to our modern era–that lawlessness, in this case the murder of elephants, will be abided as long as we think we are being proactive about the problem.

We are not being proactive, we are being reactive, and it is a mindless reflex that epitomizes the worst of how good intentions lead to calamitous consequences. The law proposed by Assemblyman Sweeney to outlaw the sale of all ivory and the presidential directive to prohibit the import of all ivory and to further restrict the trade in rosewood, tortoise shell and other resources that are either endangered or extremely scarce, mean well, but will cripple the antiques trade. In essence, what is happening is the expropriation by the government of our livelihood.

This may sound dramatic, but it isn’t. There are hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of items that are being threatened with seizure should the directive hold and the Sweeney law go forward. This is contrary to American law, at the least, but leaving that aside, what is to become of these antique items? Simply stated, they can only be destroyed. To what purpose? That ivory or rosewood item was made when there were, seemingly, limitless quantities of the material. What gets resolved by such actions?

There is an answer and  it is a very simple one. Every antique that includes endangered materials needs to be registered and given a passport of its own. The database for the passport should be international, accessible to all governments. Undocumented pieces should either be documented or made illegal. In this computerized age, it would be remarkably easy to do and  I am one hundred percent certain that every bona fide dealer would support such a measure. These “top down” solutions currently being proposed ned to be seen for what they are–a band aid for a patient with cancer.

Robert K. Sweeney, an Assemblyman from Lindenhurst, NY, wants to ban the sale of all ivory in New York State. This applies to both new and old ivory. The repercussions of such an action are enormous and I would like to point out just a few of them. However, I want to mention that I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this last Sunday and started to take photographs with my phone of all the ivory pieces on display. There aren’t thousands of them, but there are a lot. This is our cultural heritage on display and ivory has been one of the more important materials used for that purpose.
The affect of banning the sale of ivory would be catastrophic for those dealers involved in European decorative arts for the last 600 years. It would also affect the antiquities trade, Asian specialists, and my own bailiwick, the English furniture business. Ivory was used as a surface for the painting of miniatures and ivory was ground to create white pigment, in essence making a great many of the Renaissance paintings illegal. It is a long list and even though our trades are not huge and corporate, we do provide a service that is unique. We understand objects from the past in the way that few people, save curatorial staff, do. Putting us out of business does nothing to save the elephant.
The really chilling aspect of the law is that those owners of ivory pieces, or the inheritors of such collections, will have no way in which to dispose what they have. In essence, it would put people into the position of either going to or creating a black market, or junking the pieces. I reiterate, this is our culture that we are talking about. Throwing stuff away in the vain hope to stop the slaughter of elephants is non-sequential logic. It is akin to saying to Louis Vuitton, we will stop the sale of the knock offs that are being made by banning the sale of all Louis Vuitton bags. It is absurd.
I readily understand the difficulty that US Customs faces. How does someone who is not an expert determine the age of what they are examining? However, I don’t see that as being the primary difficulty. As I mentioned in my last blog, I suggested that draconian measures be taken against the shippers, and even the ships, that transport illegal ivory. Even that does not address the true problem which is the poverty of Africa that engenders such horrible slaughter. The answers are necessarily complex, not simple. Banning the sale of ivory seems simple and effective. So was the banning of alcohol and marijuana—for a while, but it did little to curb the appetite for either.

The endangered African elephant is surely one of man’s most obvious failures at maintaining biodiversity on this incredible planet. Now, western governments are attempting to show their concern by enacting laws to curtail all ivory sales. As an antiques dealer, I have to say that the new rules come across largely as publicity stunts, not meaningful solutions, incidentally denying the cultural significance of this revered material throughout history.  There is clearly a difference between new ivory and what I will call antique ivory and it should be recognized.

But first, there are so many levels on which this problem needs addressing. The very first is the economic plight of people who would willingly destroy this extraordinary mammal. Clearly, this needs addressing.  If you further break down the effort required to get that ivory to a customer away from Africa, there are numerous points at which the problem can and should be addressed. Could we make it a crime to misrepresent the cargo on a bill of lading, perhaps? Could any ship or plane that loads such material be subject to seizure if found with such contraband—knowingly or not?

The history of every culture on this earth has venerated ivory. It is an extraordinary material that lends itself to carving and engraving. The quantity of cultural artifacts made with ivory and the stories they tell relate to everything we are today. I just finished “The Closing of the Western Mind” and pictured in it is a diptych carved in ivory, half of it now in Paris and the other half in England. The diptych tells a story of humanity and of Christianity. Should we now be destroying or driving underground these artifacts that are a part of us?

Broad sweeping laws designed to appeal to the public’s sense of frustration over something as tragic as the extermination of the elephant are not an answer to the problem. What is needed are specific measures that focus on the why and how of elephant exploitation. In the recent notice from the White House regarding the trade in ivory, there is support for limited hunting of elephants.  Huh? What on earth are they thinking? The credibility of the entire directive, one that I can’t agree with, becomes even more obfuscated by this mixed message. What are we thinking?

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

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Wonderful woman. Very free-spirited. We’re all very fond of her. Sed orci ipsum, placerat id condimentum rutrum, rhoncus ac lorem aliquam placerat posuere. Please see him, Jeffrey. He’s a good man. And thorough. Neque, at dignissim magna ullamcorper in aliquam.

One of the hallmarks of early Greek culture which differentiated it from either Egyptian or Babylonian cultures was the spirit of argument in the discovery of truth. Theory was always attacked if a better idea or substantive truth was found to replace an existing concept. Spontaneous generation, for example, was a theory posited for plants or animals whose creation remained a mystery and a source of constant investigation. (Young eels known as elvers were found in the mud but it was not known how they came into being and were believed to have generated spontaneously. The mystery continued until the 1920’s when eels were found to spawn near Bermuda.) Seeking truth became a process for the Greeks.

The Furniture History Society sponsored a study day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday which was fascinating in many ways. The foremost is that the study of furniture is far from dormant. The second is that almost all the papers touched on the concept of taste, albeit peripherally. Taste is clearly the most fascinating subject of all, particularly when one speaker, Haneen Rabie, gave a talk entitled “The Second Empire in Paris”. Her slides showed extraordinary groupings of dazzling looking items all clumped together. I can’t imagine anyone not knowing that the Second Empire lacked a clear direction as regards taste. Instead, the world of art and design was opening and people were throwing it all together in interiors that seemed to lack either rhyme or reason.

Unlike scientific inquiry, the inquiry into the reasons for style and, ergo, taste, do not allow for straightforward understanding. The response to the talk and slides on the Second Empire were many, some defensive and some offensive as regards to the speaker’s representation of the era. Without doubt, however, fashion and taste follow money and my own take on the dilution of taste, and by dilution I mean a lack of direction, is that economic expansion necessarily undermines dominant tastes rendering them passé practically by definition. New money either wants to identify with old money or reject it’s norms, the latter being far more prevalent in the modern era.

What does this have to do with the Greeks and their spirit of inquiry? Any person of taste has to understand the manifestations of style. They can’t just understand Chippendale or Hepplewhite, they need to understand Italian and French, and of all eras, not just the 18thcentury. Not only that, they have to comprehend when style works and when it doesn’t. Arguably, the Second Empire lacked direction and there was no taste, but I sincerely doubt that is the case. What happened is that the people with new money were not clear on how to use their money well. Instead, they chose to show their sophistication by piling Japanese onto French onto American, new and old, and the result was, more often than not, chaotic.

American interiors in the latter half of the 19th century seemed wide open to this chaos and yet, for anyone who has visited San Simeon, Biltmore or any of the Newport mansions, the socially elite were quite clear in their likes and dislikes. San Simeon is quite marvelous, in my opinion, and the slides we saw of Biltmore showed interesting, not chaotic, interiors. The Newport mansions are generally well put together, even if they did eschew the antique for items made in the style of the antique. The places where taste truly was pushed, often to the detriment of any style incorporated therein, were public interiors such as hotel lobbies. True taste is a matter of constant analysis, something that the Greeks would well understand. I am not sure that is true for the contemporary era. I hope I am wrong.

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